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1980 years ago or so, a homeless son of a carpenter, an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as an enemy of the Roman state. And ever since the world hasn’t stopped talking about him.
Here we are today, one of millions of churches in the world, doing the same.
This is strange, isn’t it?
Why are we doing this, so many centuries later? Where has Jesus been all this time, and what has he been doing? Inside and outside of the Christan faith, this question of where Jesus went, what he’s been up to, and why it matters has been confusing.
So it’s the one we’re going to talk about today.
We’re six weeks deep today into this little nine-week summer preaching project of mine, to preach through the Apostles Creed, a 4th century, short summary of the Christian faith. I wrote about this on our blog last week.
But my goal has been to teach some of the central beliefs of faith in the God known to us through Jesus Christ, so that this faith can continue to ground and inspire us and promote wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. Along the way, I’m also acknowledging many ways that the version of historic Christianity we’ve inherited hasn’t always served the purposes of a liberating, life-giving God, so here and there I’m suggesting ways to engage with this faith that help it align with good things the Spirit of God can be doing among us today.
This week, we take a big chunk of the creed that talks about what happened to Jesus after he died and what he’s been up to since then. Let’s read, first the lines from the past five weeks and then this week’s.
I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
The creed says Jesus lives again and remains alive. It says not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but he went to be where God lives, which we sometimes call heaven. And what is Jesus doing there? Well, at least in part, Jesus is sitting next to God’s throne, maybe with a big boy chair of his own, and that’s the spot where he’s judging us all – the dead and the living, or maybe he’s getting ready to come to judge us all, making plans, as it were.
What might all this mean? How does it square with science and with our experience? And how can this idea inspire liberating, life-giving faith?
Let me tell you where I’m going with this, and then we’ll go there together.
We’re going to take the resurrection part of this – how did Jesus come back to life – later. The final line of the creed, resurrection of the body, will also be my final sermon this summer, in a month or so. So we’ll talk then about what the gospels have to say about Jesus’ return to life, some ways we can think about that, and how that can inspire hope both in our current lives and beyond our death as well.
For today, I’m just going to say I believe, along with almost all followers of Jesus these past couple thousand years, that death wasn’t the end of Jesus, and that he is still alive.
What we’ll focus on today is the “what has he been up to” side of things. Where is Jesus, what is he doing, and what does it mean that he is a judge?
I think it means that Jesus is inviting all creation (you and me included) to participate as fully as possible in the Beloved Community, what he calls the kingdom, or the kindom, of God. Jesus is receiving, experiencing, all that happens in creation. He is assessing it, evaluating it, and then luring everyone who will collaborate to see ourselves, one another, and all creation as God sees it and embrace the next best possibility for wholeness, love, beauty, and justice.
Let’s ask how Chrisitans historically thought Jesus was doing this.
And then talk about a way we can embrace this that squares a little better with our modern world.
So historically, Christians and a lot of other ancient people believed in a 3-tiered universe. That we and plants and animals and all that live on earth, that there’s a realm of the dead beneath the earth, and that way up high, above where the birds fly, is the heavens, where God and other spiritual beings live.
Now telescopes, and satellites, and the ability to drill deep holes in the earth and all that – science – has changed the way we see the universe.
But the early followers of Jesus, when they believed Jesus ascended into heaven, what they thought was that literally. After Jesus rose, at some point, he floated up into the sky back to God’s throne, maybe a few miles up or so. Probably this throne was somewhere above Jerusalem, because God had always been really active in that part of the earth. And eventually, likely soon, Jesus would hop off the throne and come back to finish setting things right on earth.
The details of this obviously don’t sit too well with science any more. We’re also not sure what it means that Jesus would be judging the living and the dead from a heavenly throne, or coming back to earth to do that judgement. Centuries of bad theology and bad poetry and bad movies has given us the idea that some day, when we least expect it, God is going to swoop back onto earth in human form for some serious butt-kicking of all the evil people, living and dead.
Which has always been exciting for the non-evil people and kind of scary for everyone who wonders which side of things they’re on.
So there are ways of imagining Jesus living and reigning with God that don’t make a lot of sense to us. And there are ways of conceiving of Jesus as a judge that don’t seem to bear good fruit either. But what if this language in the creed was a pre-scientific way to conceptualize what is still true – that there is an ongoing life of Christ, who is engaged redemptively with you and me and the rest of this world, living and dead? I think this is the case.
Let’s listen to something Jesus said that Jesus would be up to after the end of his time on earth.
John 16:12-13, 7-8 (Common English Bible)
12 “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.
13 However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.
So Jesus says, I will still be with you, but in a different way, through a spirit of truth, who will guide you. Just earlier, Jesus said this about the same spirit and guidance.
7 I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companionwon’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
8 When he comes, he will show the world it was wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment.
Here Jesus gives the Spirit of Truth a name, the Companion. The Companion is one of many translations of this Greek word Paraclete – the one who comes alongside, the one Christians have normally called the Holy Spirit. Paraclete is a companion, an accompanier, a helper. Paraclete is able to speak for God. And Paraclete assesses us and highlights where we’ve been wrong, so we can know the truth and find our way.
There are types of judgement Jesus resists: casting someone aside, viewing any person or group of people as beyond God’s loving care or worthy of our approach.
But here he says, when I go, the Spirit God sends to speak for me, the Companion will assess you and will guide you into truth.
This is a picture of judgement.
Not long ago one of my kids was acting weird, avoiding something they had to do, being pretty irresponsible about it, complaining and creating distractions, probably lying too, best as I could tell.
So what did I do?
I brought down the hammer, right?
No, of course not.
If you love your kids, you don’t go around thinking of new ways to punish them. No, depending on their age, their habits, their past behavior, your relationship, the situation, and a million other things, you try to intervene in ways that will help them see the truth about themselves and their world, and move toward wholeness, love, goodness, and flourishing.
In this case, we realized my kid was avoiding something they were really scared of, and we could figure out how to address that and to encourage courage, not avoidance.
Jesus says God’s at least as good a parent as any of us are, so why would we think that God’s judgments would be more arbitrary and violent than ours.
When you look at someone and say: This is my child, the one that I love, a lot of things come off the table.
I got this line from a theologian named Tripp Fuller, who’s one of the people who influenced this series. It’s true.
God’s judgment isn’t about punishment and rewards. It’s about maintaining a communicative relationship in which God is always inviting us to see the truth and to move toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing.
We need this kind of judgement. We need the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to encourage us and also to show us when we’re wrong.
Parents, educators, athletes, all of us really, know that growth only comes with honest assessment.
We don’t know where Jesus is right now, like physically. It’s probably the wrong question to ask. Jesus remembers his only embodied experience as the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, but past his time on earth a couple of thousand years ago, he is surely now Spirit, as God has always been.
But as Spirit, I think this is what Jesus is doing – receiving the experience of all creation, paying attention to it all, taking it in, feeling, reacting, assessing its value, and then through the Spirit of Truth, the Companion who comes alongside, communicating to all creation God’s next invitation toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing.
Let me share two examples in my life of how this has been happening, how I’ve experienced Jesus’ assessing judgment and guidance, for the living and the dead.
The first is me in relationship with my long dead Aunt Ethel. My great Aunt Ethel lived a small, sad life. There are a lot of holes in what I know, but she was born in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, grew up, fell in love, had that love spurned. At some point, she developed severe mental illness, or at least was perceived to have.
Things got worse and worse, until she was institutionalized for quite some time. Residential mental health care in the mid-1900s was ran the whole gamut from humane people doing their best to pretty awful. I’m not sure of all of what happened, but I know my grandfather kept visiting, kept supporting her best he could, and eventually helped get her out into transition housing and work. And in my childhood, during that era, I would see her on holidays. She was the one visibly cognitively and mentally impaired person in my early childhood, and I mostly remember how often she would say: this is beautiful. So beautiful. You’re beautiful.
I don’t think anyone in my family would report that I was close to her or that she meant a lot to me. When she died when I was a teenager, neither me nor most others in my family traveled to her funeral, and we didn’t talk about her often after that either.
But in the past decade, I’ve thought about her a lot more. Wondered about her back story, treasured her freedom and her sense of beauty in her later years. Appreciated her positive, loving vibe. Wished I had been closer.
Thinking about her makes me more sensitive, more loving, more compassionate. Toward mental illness, toward cognitive limitations, toward rough lives. My memories of Aunt Ethel today shape me into a more curious and compassionate person toward myself and many others. I feel like she’s a part of me now, in a way that she never was when I was younger and she was still alive.
What’s going on here?
Well, my Aunt Ethel is dead. And childhood me is in a sense dead as well. Both my past and Aunt Ethel’s whole time on earth are part of the dead. We’re both gone, can’t be re-experienced or changed. But we – my Aunt and my past self – are both valued and assessed by God. We are both remembered, we both matter. We both still influence God. When I remember my younger self (less curious, less compassionate) and when I remember my Aunt Ethel, and all she saw as beautiful – I am shaped by the past, shaped by what’s dead. And I think this is happening because Jesus, through the Companion Spirit of Truth, keeps bringing this to my consciousness, keeps shaping the present and future me through Jesus’ value and memory and assessment of the dead.
Everything and everyone that has ever been matters to God. No one and nothing is unseen, unloved, and unimportant. We all influence God. We all are part of what God assesses and part of the future possibilities that God shapes for us all.
Here’s another story, among the living this time.
Last week, at the start of the week, I was stressed out and unfocused. I had way too many things and way too many problems on my mind. I had also had a couple of conflicts that didn’t resolve very well. In one of them, someone I respect had told me I had acted poorly and this was part of a pattern that hurt them.
Two things happened. I had a call scheduled Monday with a person I’m honest with and is good at listening, and sometimes telling me the truth. Before that call, I had an instinct to sit alone in a quiet room for 15 minutes. While I did that, the Bible verse
Be still and know that I am God
came to mind, and I tried to sit there and meditate on that verse, just be still and know that God is God. Then I had my call, and shared how I was doing, and at one point, my friend wondered – hey, with all that’s going on, have you considered just sitting quietly and remembering the verse,
Be still and know that I am God.
I laughed, told my friend what had happened right before the call, and then we sat together on the phone for a few minutes, silently, remembering that verse.
The next day, I was going about my business and the thought came to me, in that conflict the person was right. I was hurt. And what came to mind were a couple of things I could do next to not just say I was sorry, but to show I was sorry, and to begin to shift and make amends. I told God I would do this and asked for help, and so far it’s gone pretty well.
What was happening there?
I think God was present in the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to help me see the truth about myself and my world. And to guide me toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing.
The Christian words for what happened were judgement, confession, repentance, and restoration.
Not punishment/judgment, but judgement as assessment – Spirit of God nudging me to see the truth.
No priest was involved, but I told God and a friend and myself and a person I’d hurt the truth.
And then, with the help of God and friends, a path toward something better emerged, and in this case, I tried to take it, and that made all the difference.
Friends, in little ways like this and in much bigger ways too, this is what I think Jesus is doing.
Receiving all the world’s experiences, big and small, living and dead, feeling them, assessing their value, and then nudging us to know the truth, and offering to us ideas and pathways and options for the most loving, just, whole path forward for us all.
99% of this happens beneath our consciousness, but faith in a living, life-giving communicative God tells us it’s happening all the time still.
What we can do by faith is cooperate: we can trust God is still with us, and values and assesses all people and things, living and dead. We can trust that God is even more loving and wise than the most loving and wise parent in how God does that.
And we can seek to know the truth about ourselves and the world, welcoming what seems most true from wherever it comes. And then with the help of God and friends, we can confess – we can tell the truth – and we can say yes with courage and grace to the most loving, just, whole, and flourishing paths forward in all things. This is God’s good will for us, and a path toward our joy and life.